Recently I was asked to describe my biggest weakness. It was the first time I had been asked this question since I applied for a lifeguarding job when I was 15. Back then my answer was simple, obviously not tailored to a job interview, and stated with all of the eloquence and poise a taken-off-guard 15-year-old could come up with, "Uhhhh, I'm not that good at math." Not exactly the answer they were looking for I'm sure, but I got the job.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to have encountered experiences in my life that have shaped me into the person that I am and will become. Anyone's answer to the question of what his or her biggest weakness is is going to change throughout his or her life, strengths and weaknesses are variables that can depend on circumstances. My answer has certainly changed. This time around when I was asked to describe my biggest weakness my answer was arguably just as simple, but much broader: I put too much pressure on myself.
I am someone who is super goal-oriented and relies on concrete proof, like numbers or grades, to validate that I am on the way to these goals. It's great in that I maintain a high level of motivation to do my best. But terrible, in that it can go too far so fast.
What exactly is it that makes someone who used to be a relatively laid-back person turn into a giant ball of stress who gets a paper back with a grade of A- and immediately thinks "Where did I mess up? What could I have done better? I worked on this for two weeks and revisions for three extra days, but that clearly wasn't enough."
Let's take a look at everything that has been chilling in the back of my mind or has been said to me by an adult since entering an extremely academically challenging university:
"Make sure you have at least two to three internships or other forms of experience prior to graduating." "You should be applying for these in October instead of December if you really want to get a jump on things." "Also don't forget your actual homework, like the seven-page paper you have due for your writing intensive course Monday, and the other 10-page paper you have due in that class that you work really hard in but still don't really understand, that's also due Monday." "Don't fall behind in any of your readings either, make sure you're reading the textbook every night." "Take notes on all of the readings and turn in a summary at the beginning of each class." "You need to have at least three extracurricular activities, preferably where you hold leadership roles in addition to maintaining your GPA." "Also you'll be miserable without friends so make sure you're maintaining some kind of social life." "Make sure you're getting to the gym every day, it'll help reduce stress and keep you from getting sick, you need to take care of yourself." "The median GPA for the graduate school you're interested in is 3.77 but they also require breadth and depth of curriculum, you need to be challenging yourself more and working even harder." OKAY BUT WHEN DO I SLEEP? ("You should be getting eight-plus hours every night by the way.")
Having these instructions constantly in the back of your mind turns you into the person who is genuinely upset over the A-. And while that definitely always isn't the worst thing, we become so focused on what we need to be doing more of and what we need to be doing better that stress consumes us. I have friends that have literally forgotten to eat or neglected sleeping consecutive nights in a row because they want the A instead of the A-. THAT'S NOT HEALTHY. Yes, you should want to do your best, yes, numbers and grades are important to you future, but, no, they don't define you as a human being. That's what is too easy to forget as a college student in 2016. We forget to take time for ourselves now because we are too busy worrying about ourselves in the future and it's affecting our mental health.
Take time for yourself. It can be something as simple as going to bed an extra hour earlier one time instead of doing those extra notes in the library like you do every other night. Or something as silly as having an impromptu sleepover in your friend's dorm room after a stressful day/week just to hang-out and goof off.
All in all, yes, the grades are important. Yes, you should stay driven and organized. Yes, you should be unsatisfied with yourself if you know you didn't give your absolute best at that moment in time. But you should also remember that your best performance can vary depending on the day or week, state of your health, and what else you have going on. One of the most important things that you can do to help yourself succeed and maintain a healthy mental state is to take time for yourself every once in a while. If you don't you may find that you've pushed yourself too far and the stress will consume you.
Stay focused. Stay driven. But also choose to just take the nap sometimes.